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1 oct. 2012
Montreal Jazz Festival, June 28-July 7
On a July Monday afternoon, in the press room of the mighty Montreal Jazz Festival, Ron Carter was being duly toasted, and peppered with questions in a press conference a few hours before his own trio took the stage of the Club Soda venue. He was presented the festival’s annual Miles Davis award, at last. Of course, Carter is a more than logical choice, having been part of Miles’ mid-60s « second great quintet, » and clearly one of the great combos in jazz history, alongside Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.
Inquiring press members wanted to know about Carter’s role in the classic Miles band – a line of questioning the tall, unflappable bassist has dealt with for nearly 50 years now, sometimes dismissively. But on this day, he happily remembered the vibe of the band, saying « we were wearing lab jackets, man. No one took the time to think this was ‘important music.’ None of us had a clue about importance. We were caught up in the next measure. »
Shifting the focus to pressing matters and away from past history, Carter said « I’m looking forward to tonight. We have to think like that, otherwise, we should just go home. » And, sure enough, he was engaged and in-the-moment at work that night, in his trio of men in nice suits and yellow ties, mixing orderliness and freedom in artful balance.
As legacy and past visitor to the festival during the ‘80s, Miles Davis looms large over this festival in various ways, as he does much of the jazz cosmos. It would seem that each festival in recent years has hosted a Miles Davis tribute project, and this year’s model was a throw-together band dubbed « Miles Smiles » (but more about his fully electric period, not the Smiles era). Trumpeter Wallace Roney and organist Joey DeFrancesco had strong ties to Miles in the last decade of his life, as did saxist Bill Evans and bassist Darryl Jones, and this band also featured fusion pioneer guitarist Larry Corryell and drummer Omar Hakim, stretching out and grooving forward, rarely capturing the essence of what made Miles Miles. The highlight, and unexpected treat, of the set may have been the quixotic ballad "He Loved Him Madly,” Miles’ homage to Duke Ellington soon after his death, which lays out across all of side A of his 1975 album Get Up With It.
More intriguing and original electric-textured music came in the late night set at Gesù, Centre de créativité, courtesy of legendary Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal’s "Crime Scenes” conceptual project. Rypdal, with his searing and sometimes languid sound, is very much the focal point of the project, but his allies count for much here – the project features trumpeter (and, yes, Miles collaborator) Palle Mikkelborg, and the Bergen Big Band, put to minimal but effective use. I have heard this project at different festivals a few times now, and the Montreal edition seemed the best and strongest yet, with a sense of clarity in the delivery and balance of elements, and with the all-important rough, Rypdal-ian edges and essential enigmas and dark passages intact.
As one of the running themes in the 2012 Montreal Festival program, edition #33, there was a lot of rumbling from down under, register-wise. To wit: the bass got its due as a lead instrument. In addition to Ron Carter’s being the Milles Davis Award recipient, the electric bass scene got more than its share of spotlight. Stanley Clarke was one of this year’s "Invitational Series” artists (along with Norwegian mood painter pianist Tord Gustavsen, later in the festival), and Clarke’s four concerts included his own band, a show with Hiromi, Harlem String Quartet, and the electric bass summit meeting that is the bass bluster buster trio of Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten.
Wooten himself, who seems like one of the gentler souls among those who abide by electric music, mustered up some happy, jazzy fusion-making at his set in Club Soda, featuring two (count ‘em) extra dexterous electric bassists – including Steve Bailey - to join the party. As happens in Wooten’s gigs, whether his own or in shows with longtime band connection Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, the bassist offered up a restless solo piece, replete with right-hand tapping and fleeting quotations of « Norwegian Wood » and « Caravan. » Somewhere between the Beatles and Ellington, between jazz-rock gymnastics and truer musical doings, Wooten continues his admirable work.
Some of the more exciting music making occurred not in the high profile, high polish larger venues but in the smaller quarters, where invention and improvisation could develop. One of those magical smaller rooms is the still-young L’Astral nightclub, built as the in-house club in the lavish new multi-story festival compound, the « Maison du Festival » launched in 2009 and completed last year, across the street from the now demolished Spectrum.
L’Astral’s schedule included an impressive showing by chromatic harmonic poet and wizard Grégoire Maret, an artist who has largely been a notable sideman for others, and still deserving greater recognition and his own name on the marquee. In this quartet setting, Maret offered ample proof of his claim as heir apparent to Toots Thielemanns’ lofty status on the instrument. Like Thielemanns, Maret manages a critical balancing act: he’s a natural virtuoso and also a natural romantic, moving seamlessly from music by Stevie Wonder (another chromatic harp wonder), a burnished beauty on « The Man I Love » and some spidery uptempo bop playing which left us dazzled, and the harpist fairly breathless.
On Sunday night at L’Astral, the stage was turned over to the unique sensation of song, stylistic dance, retro wit and bubbly absurdity that is Nellie McKay. McKay, playing solo here and making a full night of it, played at this festival back in 2004, around the time she was starting to generate buzz for her unconventional-meets-conventional approach. She has relaxed a bit now, career-wise, given up dreams of major label stardom and gotten down to the business of tending her own private musical garden. At L’Astral, that musical garden included "Beneath the Underdog,” a deceptively chirpy song with witty lyrics and dark undertones, a medley on ukulele which glided with an odd ease from « Georgie Girl » to the Beatles’ angst-y « I’m So Tired. » McKay also tilted in an Ella-esque direction with her limber vocal trake on the sweet old ballad « If I Had You. »
In recent years, the thick, overlapping schedule of shows on the festival program has included a slightly « off campus » venue, the comforting jazz space known as Upstairs (actually, a downstairs space, nestled down below street level). This year, the venerable organist Dr. Lonnie Smith bought his nimble, amiable and be-turbaned self to the stage here, playing tunes from a new album, « The Healer, » and more. Smith, summoning up his customary house blend of entertainer’s instinct and bone-deep musicality, was in good company, doing up the organ trio format right with the versatile guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake.
To these ears, the finest music made over the several days I visited, came from the grand (in more than one way) piano duo of Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes, married in life and in compatible musical vision in this setting. They showed might and poetry on « Double Portrait » their brilliant duo album for Blue Note, and the live experience, a late Monday night set at the Gesù, was a stunning thing to be present for.
Opening, with a implied wink, on the theme of « Never Will I Marry, » the set also included the relevant Wayne Shorter beauty « Anna Maria, » dedicated to his wife. Other tunes providing ample expressive opportunities for these commanding players ranged from Bill Evan’s "Show Type Tune” to Charlie Parker’s « Relaxin’ at Camarillo, » from « The Last Time I Saw Paris » to Lyle Mays’ hypnotically cyclical Brazilian-esque tune « Chorinho. » That set-closer became a deadly cool and bustling thing in these empathetic aligned heads and hands, etching itself into this listener’s memory as possibly the brightest five minutes of this year’s Montreal festival encounter.
Photo : Ron carter Trio ©FIJM, Denis Alix, by courtesy
(La version française est publiée dans Jazz Hot n° 661)
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